How traditional cider was accidentally saved by marketing men
It was only a few years ago that stories of the demise of English cider and the end of a centuries' old industry were imminent. Commercial cider makers were going bust and orchards in the West Country, the traditional heartland of English cider, were being grubbed up. What remained were a few specialist, family-owned companies and the small scale, local farm produced cider makers.
Cider had a severe image problem. Traditional ‘scrumpy’ was seen by many as a drink for middle-aged men in smocks, immortalised by the Worzell’s song ‘I am a cider drinker’ or worse, in its industrial ‘white’ form, a cheap way for adolescents and down-and-outs to get legless. Then along came Magners.
Overnight, or so it seemed, cider was cool, literally. Bottled cider ‘over ice’ was all the rage. This was a revolution. Magners Irish Cider launched a hugely successful advertising and marketing campaign, emphasising Magners' sophistication and heritage. It caught on. Sales soared by 250% in a year.
It’s probably worth noting here that Magners is part of Bulmers Limited of Clonmel, Ireland, itself a subsidiary of C&C Group plc. It is not connected with H.P. Bulmer Ltd of Hereford, England; which was bought by Scottish and Newcastle in 2003, now part of Heineken. The Irish Bulmers couldn’t market the Bulmers name outside Ireland and so adopted Magners, the name of the founder of the Irish cider maker.
It appears that under S&N, Bulmers were about to re-launch their own Bulmers Original Cider when Magners burst onto the market. S&N were not new to the cider market, their draught ciders, Strongbow and Woodpecker were already long established brands which vied for the brand leader position against Dry Blackthorn Cider, made by mass market cider maker Gaymers.
What is remarkable about this surge in sales is the overall market increased and virtually all cider makers benefited from a new interest in their product. Such a massive rise is usually followed by a corresponding fall, but so far sales are down but not disastrously. Loss of market share by Magners is likely to be due to other products catching up and drinkers looking for the next new cider product and there have been plenty.
Magners meteoric rise has spurred others, first to copy, then to re-invent. Drinkers, especially younger drinkers, are a fickle lot. Today they must have it; tomorrow it’s old hat, or apples. So to keep drinkers interested and bring new ones into the cider market requires an unrelenting sales drive.
A new world of cider was invented. Bottled ciders led the way with new flavours such as elderflower, lime, blueberry and peach. Now Perry, or pear cider, is the new kid on the block and that too is getting the flavour treatment. The draught sector has come up with ice cider, a sort of Slush Puppy, with ice crystals dispensed from the font. What will they think of next?
Not all of the interest in cider should be dismissed as mere marketing and hype; it’s a fresh and clean drink, made from apples and little else. For those who find beers too bitter or lager too bland, cider is a good half way. It can be weak or strong in alcohol, sweet or dry, clear or cloudy, fizzy or flat; on a hot summer’s day it is deliciously refreshing.
Britain produces and consumes more cider that any other country. UK cider production has risen to 130 million gallons a year. Cider production on this scale cannot be achieved on the farm and like modern brewing, uses vast vessels in a factory setting and employs scientific processes to ensure successful fermentation. In general, the resurgence in cider has been positive. Two million new cider apple trees were planted in the decade to 2006. It is a natural product, is not energy intensive and employs workers in rural areas.
Those who enjoyed the delights of cider, before the Magners explosion, must be scratching their beards, adjusting their smocks, letting out an “Oooh, aaarrr!” and wondering what all the fuss is about.
Where apples grow, there will be cider. It is simply apple juice, fermented, which occurs naturally because the juice contains sugars and wild yeasts on the skin to start the process. For centuries country folk have been making cider and enjoying it without the urge to pour it over crushed ice. They certainly wouldn’t pay four quid a bottle for it!
Traditional cider making in England is concentrated in Devon, Somerset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Kent and Suffolk. English cider making goes back at least 1000 years; the Normans were keen on cider and brought over their own apple varieties and expertise after the invasion in 1066. However it’s thought that English cider was well established long before then.
There are parallels with keg and cask ales; the national producers with their huge vats, make cider on an industrial scale and supply a mass market. The regional craft cider makers on the other hand, sell a specialty product to a small but discerning niche. The farm makers are the ‘microbrewer’ equivalent, producing small batches and either selling surplus to their own needs or they cater for a tiny local market.
Even before the ‘Magners effect’ the Campaign for Real Ale was helping craft cider makers, CAMRA saw them being squeezed out of the market in the same way that cask ale brewers had been. In common with real ales, real ciders have diverse styles, in flavour, appearance and strength; cider apple varieties are numbered in their hundreds. It's a happy irony that many small craft cider makers have enjoyed a resurgence, due in large part to the promotion of the mass market product.
Making Cider with Style
Squeeze the juice from some apples, put it in a container and it will begin to ferment. After a few weeks strain the juice, put it in bottles and in a few more weeks you have cider, or vinegar, or something in between.
Commercial cider makers need more certainty and control; they ensure sterile conditions, use special cider yeasts to avoid contamination and chose one, or more, of the three hundred plus cider apple varieties to achieve the desired taste and aroma. Each apple variety has its own character of sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and aroma. By halting or prolonging the fermentation time the alcoholic content of the cider can be controlled. Mixing finished ciders of different alcoholic strengths and flavours can achieve a desired blend.
Contacts & references:
How to Make Cider
The National Association of Cider Makers